Locals in Hanoi ’s suburban Quoc Oai district had handed down a curse through generations that the traditional song genre, “hat do”, should be performed by virgin teenagers at a special festival held in spring every 36 years.
Anyone breaking the curse would catch a diseases and die, legend had it. Fear of the curse pushed “hat do” to the verge of extinction in the district, which is 20km west of the city centre.
The legend began a long time ago, in a spring during the reign of the Hung King, when the Mountain God travelled along the Tich River and stopped at today’s Liep Tuyet commune of Quoc Oai district.
He found the land there fertile with not many people so he gave the locals good rice seed and taught them how to farm. He also gathered young people together and taught them how to sing and dance.
The Mountain God (Son Tinh) then left the region, telling locals he would return at harvest time, but he did not.
The residents longed for his return, so much so that they built a temple to worship him, which is known today as Khanh Xuan Temple. Young people performed the songs and dances they learnt during his visit and when the harvests were good it was because of the Mountain God.
Thirty-six years later, he did return, and he joined in the singing and dancing festival, setting the trend for a festival to be held every 36 years. It means each person gets the chance to sing and dance to the melodies once in his/her lifetime.
“Hat do” uses various forms of poetic genres. They were initially prayer songs to the gods while worshipping at Khanh Xuan Temple .
The lyrics carry wishes for prosperity, love between people and love for nature.
The old custom was protected by strict regulations that all objects used in the performance – such as scarves, costumes, handbags and written records of the melodies – must be kept in the temple. Between festivals, no one was allowed to mention them, sing the melodies or open the paraphernalia used in the festival. Anyone violating would be punished by some unknown power. The last festival was held in spring 1926.
Though the area was the birthplace of such a special singing art, hardly any locals knew a song or a melody. However, that all change when Nguyen Thi Lan stepped up to preserve the art – the only one brave enough to break the curse.
Lan’s intiative followed a visit in 1989 of staff from the Culture Centre of Ha Tay province (now merged into Hanoi) came to the commune to study “hat do”. As chairwoman of the commune’s Women’s Association, she was responsible for seeking potential singers to preserve the art.
“I am refused by most of families I visited,” Lan says. “They were afraid that their children would be punished by the curse.”
She then tried to awaken pride inside people, telling them that they own one of the most special folk singing genres in the nation’s history.
“If adults fear the curse and stop the children from learning “hat do”, that art may disappear forever,” she said.
Her persuasion did not change people’s thoughts immediately but gradually she succeeded in breaking down preconceptions.
Three elders in the commune, Dam Thi Dieu, Kieu Thi Nhuan and Ta Van Lai, who took part in the 1926 festival, were then invited to teach at a singing class.
Le Thi Xuan, a 15-year-old learner, says the young people were disheartened at first as “hat do” was so complicated.
“There are too many ligatures (symbols indicating a group of notes to be sung to one syllable) in the songs. Besides, it is hard for us to hear from the old people, who are too old to pronounce properly.
“But then the old timers told us to record the words on paper and sing to them to check whether they were correct. When we succeeded, we became interested.”
In 2000, following the renovation of Khanh Xuan Temple , the group performed to fellow villagers. In 2003, what became the local “hat do” club was considered culturally significant and received an investment of 10 million VND (560 USD) from the Vietnam Folk Literature and Arts Association.
In 2005, the association and the Ford Foundation invested 60 million VND (3,363 USD) in a project to preserve and develop “hat do”. The club has since invited more teachers, gathered more learners and made additional costumes in the old style. In 2005-06 more than 60 local young performers were trained.
Lan herself became a teacher and recruiter of young people.
She tells them: “If no one can sing “hat do”, we will be to blame, in front of our ancestors.”
The curse has gradually been forgotten. The present club is often invited to attend folk arts festivals and art programmes throughout the northern region.
Last May, Lan attended a conference on oral culture of Asian countries in Malaysia./.